Final thoughts

I like tidy endings. I like tying up loose ends and finishing things well. Therefore, you get this blog post. I just want to say this: Deep History and Domestication was one of the best classes I’ve taken at Virginia Tech.

I really want to teach when I grow up (probably some sort of animal physiology, zoology, or something in that vein), so whenever I take a particularly good class, I pay attention to how it is run, so I can aspire to teach like that in my future. Usually, I can break it down to a few things: clear explanations, abundant resources, an interested instructor. In this class, I wasn’t quite able to do that. Everything just worked. Of course, Dr. Nelson is awesome and did a great job teaching the class and selecting the readings. She also has a remarkable ability to express her own opinion and still let her students have theirs. She deserves nearly all of the credit for making this class excellent.

However, everybody else in the class was great too. We came from a wide variety of backgrounds and majors and were all able to bring our experiences to the table–both figuratively and literally, since we met in the Hillcrest meeting room, around a table. The final projects really express this wide variety of backgrounds and abilities, which all bring something interesting and worthwhile. Erica’s chicken project (the class winner!) is extensive and covers everything from factory farming to the ethics of dissection. Her description of dissecting a recently killed chicken is particularly compelling. Alex’s donkey project and Ben’s reindeer project were fun to read and compare to my own horse project, noticing differences and similarities between these large, herbivorous domesticates. Humans still do not control the movement of reindeer, which fascinates me. And while horses have become more and more widespread, donkeys are actually becoming endangered. Bill’s bee project moves seamlessly from plant biology to modern medicine, making me realize that bees touch our lives in more ways than I ever thought possible. Casey’s goldfish site, with its stunning design (enter the Goldfish!), is full of interesting information about the ancient world and today’s world (and includes a really cool goldfish training video!). Chris’s cat project talks about internet cats, Egyptian cats, and everything in between. It made me wonder whether cats will ever become fully domesticated. Last, but more certainly not least, Connor’s pigeon project, a fascinating discussion of how pigeons gained their terrible reputation, covers lots of cool things including (my favorite!) Darwin and pigeons.

I can’t really do these projects justice by describing them, but they are really impressive. I really enjoyed having a class format in which everybody’s work was available to everybody else–then we could all learn from each other’s ideas. The freedom we were allowed on the final project was also really refreshing–I loved getting to do basically whatever I wanted on my final project. I was able to make it want I wanted and, for one of the few times in college, I am really proud of what I produced.

I may be rambling now, so I suppose that I ought to quit and say goodbye to Deep History and Domestication. However, like in all excellent classes, I won’t lose what I learned. I’ll carry the knowledge with me and, hopefully, weave it into my increasingly large tapestry of “how life works.”

I’ll leave you all with this:

At age 7, my best friend and I were very serious about our domesticates: Elizabeth (front) and Margaret (back).

At age 7, my best friend and I were very serious about our domesticates: Elizabeth (front) and Margaret (back).

Saving the best for last

Man. These readings were great. I have enjoyed everything about this class, but these readings (and hopefully, this week’s discussions) are particularly excellent.

Algernon, the rats of NIMH, and other rodents as humans

Rats are like humans, says Burt (from this week’s readings).

When I was a young teenager, I was fascinated with books about the humanity and intelligence of rodents. You will have to forgive me while I write meanderingly about some of these books. Three books that made particularly big impressions on me were Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Flowers for Algernon, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. A main theme in all of these books is the similarity of rodents to humans.

Mrs. Frisby and The Amazing Maurice are similar in that they describe human-like populations of sentient rodents. Both are YA fiction and both make make rats and mice seem very human. Interestingly, it seems that is really much easier to write compelling about human-like rodent civilizations than it is to write about human like civilizations of other species, like horses, dogs, or cats. Rats exist in a different realm than we do, but a parallel realm. We don’t really know what rodents do in the sewers or the walls, we just know that they do something. They are there, they survive, they reproduce. We have this sense that they could have human-like civilizations down there.

There is this sense, at the end of both novels, that these rodent populations are struggling against some formidable evil and that they will eventually, inevitably fall. And then, so will we.

Flowers for Algernon is different than Mrs Frisby and The Amazing Maurice in that it doesn’t describe a population of human-like rodents. In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie Gordon realizes what his fate will be when he sees the fate of the mouse (Algernon) which underwent the medical procedure that he underwent. Again, rodents are us, and we are them, but this time much more obviously. Charlie’s fate is Algernon’s fate.

Rodents survive anywhere we survive. We cannot rid ourselves of them. If rodents were wiped out, so would we be wiped out. Like us, rodents are omnivores and are opportunists.

“The rat is a clean animal living in the middle of filth, a cunning and intelligent creature of no discernible use, a parasite rather than a producer,” writes Burt. Is that not as true of humans as it is true of rats? Culvier, who classified the animal kingdom in 1817 said that rats have an “extraordinary capacity for destruction disproportionate to their size” (Burt). Is this not also true of humans?

The mouse as a lab animal

Wow. Before DNA had been identified as the genetic material, people were already doing complex studies to determine whether cancer had a genetic component. To do this, they were using the mouse as a human model. Again, mice as humans. If this medication will cure mouse cancer, we say, it should cure human cancer.

Our distaste for mice and rats has made it very easy to make them subject of our (perhaps cruel) scientific experiments.Don’t get me wrong. I support animal research more than your average American. I’m going to do research on animal when I grow up. Also, most of us are alive due to animal research. But, we must admit that it is sometime cruel. Intrntionally breeding mice that will inevitably die of cancer is cruel. Necessary? yes. Highly useful? yes. But also cruel. I’m not here to discuss the ethics of animal research, however.

Mice came to be a staple model animal because of one researcher, Little, who bred a strain of inbred “oncomice” and because of the American anti-cancer movement. Without Little, what would research look like? How different would it be?

Names: animal as individuals and as objects

Names impart human characteristics. Apparently, there is some evidence that dolphins call each other by name, but (as far as I know) few (if any) other species do. By giving something a name, we are giving it a small piece of our own humanity. We are saying “you are one of us.” Of course laboratory animals are not named, just as meat animals are not named. Once we have named an animal, we have in a way, “humanized” it, and then we couldn’t use it as if it were an object, rather than a living thing.

When we consider laboratory animals, just as with meat animals, we don’t want to consider the idea that animals we use could be anything like us.

Is this wrong? I don’t really know, honestly. If we first say that the use (as food or as a model) of the animal is necessary and further we say that people must be involved in the maintenance of the animal, then these people must somehow get around the fact that the animals for which they care every day will eventually die. This is very possible. We become affectionate selectively in our lives with good reason. If I cared for every person I met as much as I care for my brother, I would not be able to function. Similarly, if I cared for every animal as much as I care for my pony, I would always be filled with despair.

Finally, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m with Shapiro on the lack of necessity of laboratory animals in psychology. Why are we modeling psychological conditions in something as different than a human as a rat? Medical conditions, yes. I get that. Our physiological systems aren’t tremendously different that those of a rat. Our mental systems, however, are very different and the use of a rat model seems generally irresponsible (not in every case, obviously. But in many, if not most cases).

Darwin is a cool dude.

I am even more impressed with Darwin than I was before. He is a good and entertaining writer and explained his ideas clearly. He said “I hope that the reader will pause before coming to any final and hostile conclusion on the theory of natural selection.” I wonder what is must have been like to be Darwin? His ideas were not highly popular. I thought it was adorable and honest (and highly untypical of modern science writing) to encourage readers to consider his ideas. I was also surprised by his mention of a Creator in the last part of the second part of the Darwin reading. Nobody would mention a Creator, for any reason, in modern scientific writing. Attitudes towards religion were obviously very different then than they are now–the existence of a Creator was basically accepted in society.

Darwin uses of bees as an example of un-selectable animals. Since people cannot contain them, they cannot mate certain females with certain females. This, he says, domesticated bees are much like un-domesticated bees. This is an interesting idea, but I wonder if it is really the case. Surely bees would at least be affected by “natural” selection in domestication. Perhaps they couldn’t be selected to possess certain traits, but they would be changed by being kept by people, a sort of unnatural “natural” selection.

Of course, natural selection acts on domesticated animals. I had just never really thought about it, though. This idea of what happen at the interface between natural selection, methodical selection, and unconscious selection really fascinates me, because for most of the history of domesticates, this is how animals have been bred. The idea that different strains of cattle, sheep, and pigs developed in different parts of England is clear evidence for this. Different natural environments selected for certain traits. Then, people both intentionally and unintentionally selected certain animals for certain traits. Of course, modern poultry production depends mainly on methodical selection. However, even in that case, there must be some unconscious selection and natural (or, like I mentioned earlier, unnatural natural selection). Unconscious selection is inevitable unless selection is for one single trait and is done based upon numerical values for this trait (like weight at a certain age). And of course, animal ill-suited to their environments will die off, no matter what that environment is.

Pangenesis is a weird theory. I find old scientific theories very entertaining. Why did people think that this was feasible? How did they even come up with it? Why did they not object to the complete lack of evidence?

The Brantz reading was very interesting, particularly the portions on keeping pets and keeping animals in zoos. Reading things like that makes me wish that we had another semester of studying animal domestication–there are so many more interesting things to learn about.

This transition from keeping animals out of necessity to keeping animals as novelty items is an interesting one. Perhaps, people have co-evolved with animals so long that they have some some of innate need for the company of domesticates. Perhaps when  farming became unnecessary for the upper classes, they chose to keep pets to fulfill that innate need.

This process of acclimatization that Brantz discussed is one that would not be acceptable in today’s society–or at least, to today’s scientists. There is, increasingly, a focus on keeping animals and natural spaces as they were “meant to be.” What, though, does “meant to be” really mean? Ecosystems are constantly changing. We humans are but another animal in our ecosystems. Perhaps I am playing devils’ advocate here…
I would love to know more about the early history of zoos. How interesting that zoos originally attempted to “civilize” animals and now attempt to make their environments as natural as possible. I wonder what zoos will be like in 100 years or even 200 or 300. WIll they still exist? Will we conclude that it is unethical to keep animals in cages at all?

Asses, Horses, Bits, and Chariots

Disclaimer: Like I said in class last week, I am generally very comfortable talking about sex. I want to study reproductive physiology in graduate school, and a prerequisite for studying in that area is the ability to say the words penis and vagina in any situation without flinching. I’m not trying to be vulgar or flippant, I just think it is easier to talk about something directly than to skirt around the topic.

Discussion questions are bold-ed throughout. Apologies to Erica for stealing this excellent format. Alex is my co-discussion leader–his blog should have additional questions.

I am not sure why Bulliet is so enthused about beastiality. Perhaps enthused is the wrong word, but it keeps coming back up. Honestly, from Bulliet’s descriptions in this section of the reading, it sounds as though beastiality really was not frowned upon in the same way it is today. Particularly compelling was his description of the Greek myth involving the girl who fell in love with Lucius in his donkey form and is disappointed when he returns to his man form. This would not be OK in our society. Why do you think that beastiality was so much more acceptable then than it is now? Bulliet would say that it was due entirely to the close proximity in which humans and animals lived. Do you agree? Do you have other ideas?

They penis, especially the donkey penis, was apparently a very powerful symbol. My first thought about why this might be related to the size of a donkey penis–it is as long and thick as a child’s arm. However, in ancient Greek art, people are often depicted with very small penises, presumably because was thought of as good. Why were donkey penises so important? Why was the penis such a powerful symbol? We laugh about phallic imagry today, but is the penis still also an important symbol in our society?  For some excellent wikipedia-ing, go to this page. Slightly, but not exactly, relevant to this course and really weird and hilarious reading.

Bulliet postulates that donkeys may originally have been domesticated for religious purposes or because of some sort of religious regard. Although initially I thought that this was absurd, it is indeed the case that cattle, sheep, and goats are better sources of meat and milk that donkeys are. Additionally, Bulliet suggests that you wouldn’t want to use an undomesticated animal as a beast of burden–strapping your valuables to it, only to have it run off. This argument is compelling, but it is the case that (even today) draft animals are trained by harnessing them to something so heavy that they cannot run off. Donkeys could have originally been tamed in this way. How reasonable is the theory that donkeys were tamed and them domesticated for religious reasons? Do you have an alternate theory?

Donkeys were regarded well and even respected and worshiped in ancient history. However, by the time that Shakespeare was writing his famous plays, the idea of the “dumb ass” has appeared. Why did this idea appear and what has caused it to persist?

Ah, the utility of categories. According to David W. Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, archaeologists can’t exactly agree on when the Bronze Age started, but generally think that it started in different places at different times. Later in chapter 7, Anthony discusses horizons. A horizon is a very broad trend, such as the t-shirt-and-jeans trend begining in the 1960s and 70s. Do we need “Bronze Age” (or other categories) as a classification? Why is it useful to classify historical eras in this way, if we can’t classify them across the board or agree on exactly how we ought to classify them? Are horizons more useful than absolute categories?

Radiocarbon dating revolutionized the study of ancient anthropology and archaeology, but also was met with much uncertainty and mistrust, because modifications and improvements in the procedure could (and did, on a couple of occasions) prove all previous results results incorrect. I had never really thought, before, about how historians feel about using various scientific technologies. As a scientist (or at least, a “wanna-be”!), I am used to the idea that a new technology–one that could dramatically change my field and even the significance of many earlier studies–could appear at basically any time. However, unless I am wildly mistaken, historians work with fairly reliable and unchanging resources (basically, stuff that has already happened) and could find a new scientific technology to be very untrustworthy and unpredictable. Not a criticism in either direction, just a thought I had. What does this mean for interdisciplinarity? Where else do you think that science and history can benefit from working together?

And now, we reach the portion of the reading that is highly relevant to my own interests: the domestication of the horse, for riding. Imagine the thought process of those first riders. What would it be like to get on a horse (a very fast, strong animal), for the very first time, when no one had eve done it before? Could that horse have been compromised in some way (injured or ill), to keep it from running away? Anthony was the first person to seriously study bit-wear patterns on horses teeth as a way of determining when riding originated. Initially, he was told that a properly fitting bit would not affect tooth wear at all. However, he pursued the idea further and found that there are distinctive patterns of tooth wear for horses that have been bitted regularly and, in fact, even soft bits made of materials like leather and hemp create wear patterns.

(Relevant only to my own interests: I would have loved to be involved in the portion of the study in which wear pattern on horses bitted with soft bits was examined. Four horses were ridden exclusively in 4 different non-metal bits for 150 hours each. Soft bit are not used in any modern riding disciplines. The horse trainer in my asks: how did the training process work? How did the horses respond? was it easier to to get these horses to “go in a frame”–or work with their necks and backs arched and noses tucked in–than it generally is? We don’t have to discuss these in class, but I think that they are interesting questions.)

My main concern about this system is that it assumes that the first horses ridden were ridden with some sort of bit. Riding horses with no bit, in a type of bridle known as a hackamore, is very common, even today, in many disciplines. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that it is much easier to teach a young horse the basics of steering and stopping with a rider aboard in a hackamore. However, the goals of early riding were probably very different than those today. Horses were certainly less tame and control was a higher priority than cooperation. However, as Anthony states, lack of bit wear patterns really say nothing about whether riding occurred. What did you all think about the bit wear patterns? What do you think about this type of measure–a measure that only tells you when something did happen, and not when something did not happen?

I saw many parallels between the domestication of horses and the domestication of reindeer. Did you all see these parallels? Why might this pattern of riding the animals you eat have appears in reindeer and horses, but not in the other large (ride-able) domesticates?

Anthony explains a theory of the original domestication of horses (for food) based upon genetic data. This theory suggests that the original population of domesticated horses originated from a population with one single foundation stallion and 70-80 mares. What do you think of this theory? Does it make sense based upon the logistics of keeping and breeding horses?

Behavior and temperament are highly heritable in horses (I speak from personal experience and from knowledge gained in genetics courses in my major). Additionally, stallions (even modern, domesticated ones) are really a pain to deal with. Therefore, I do not find the idea that people would only have kept a single, docile stallion and bred him to many mares to be a particularly surprising one. This begs the question, when did castration of horses appear? How did it revolutionize horse breeding? Geldings (castrated male horses) are well known today as the easiest-going, most trainable riding and driving horses.

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about chariots and driving, discussed in the final chapter. We can only assume that chariots came about after horses were used to pull heavy loads, because horses are prey animals and will run away from something that they perceive is chasing them–like a large, clattering chariot, fast-moving chariot–until they get used to it. As I discussed above, an effective strategy for training horses to pull is to hitch them to to something too heavy to move. Were the first chariot horses also draft horses that were used to pulling loads? What was the advantage of the chariot over riding?


Also, here‘s one of my favorite poems. It’s about learning to ride, but it could almost be about getting on a horse for the very first time.

On Goats and Farming, Practicality and Pastoralism

I have spent enough time with animals to know that there is nothing rosy and romantic about farming. The perfectly clean farm girl, in her lacy frock, leading lambs out to pasture? She does not exist. Her frock would be dirty, one of the lambs she leads would be eaten by a coyote, and later, when those lambs go to slaughter, she would weep bitterly.

Brad Kessler suggests, over and over again, in his book Goat Song, that farming and milking goats is somehow spiritual, that it is a way to connect to the people we humans once were, thousands of years ago. He romanticizes every bit of goat farming, from the haying that produces the goats’ food to the breedings that produce the goat kids themselves.

In reality, farming is just a lot of hard work. Farming is waking up before the sun, in the freezing cold, to break ice on your animals’ water and knowing that you’ll have to do it again twice before bed. Farming is trying two days and two sleepless nights to save a sick animal and then watching him die and brushing yourself off and saying “better luck next time, eh?” There is beauty in farming. There is nobility and grace in a person who makes his living with his own hands, in a person strong enough to take all of the failures that come with farming and keep on keeping on.

However, Brad Kessler doesn’t describe this nobility. Quite honestly, I don’t think he would know it if it stared him in the face. He is a novelist, not a farmer. That is perfectly OK–there is a place for everyone in the world, and for some, that place is as a novelist. However, once he made some money as a novelist, he decided to live out in the middle-of-no-where-Vermont and raise and milk goats and then write a book about it.

Now, key parts of farming are practicality and pragmatism. For thousands of years, living with and feeding from animals were necessary to survival. When you are trying to survive, you have got to make difficult, practical decisions. Brad Kessler and his wife, Dona, aren’t trying to live off of what their animals produce. They are already well-off financially and are doing a fun project. Perhaps one could call they goat-hobbyists. This is most evident in their treatment of their animals. Each goat has a name and is loved as a companion animal and an individual. Brad and Dona’s relationships with their goats are much more similar to the relationships that humans generally share with dogs than those that humans generally share with the animals that produce their food.

I am proud of the (small amount of) farm work I have done. More than that, I am proud of those I love who farm: my two closest, dearest cousins and their respective husbands farm for a living. My best friend also is currently studying agriculture and working at a farm and intends to farm when she finishes college. One of the things that I love about all of these people is their practicality and pragmatism, their ability to say: “oh well, better luck next time” after a catastrophic failure. Kessler doesn’t even begin to discuss the failures and the tragedies always present in farming. He doesn’t tell about being bone tired, itchy, and beat up and still having to work 7 days a week.

I also take issue with the accuracy of some of Kessler’s assertions. For example, he implies that a male goat would be intensely interested in a menstruating woman. Even if human pheromones worked on goats (which I do not believe that they do–pheromones are generally species-specific), male goats would be intensely interested in human females during ovulation, which generally takes place about two weeks prior to menstruation. Although this is but a small inaccuracy, it draws many of his other assertions into question–if this guy doesn’t understand female cyclicity, is there also other stuff that doesn’t understand, that I might not catch?

Kessler quotes Jim Corbett, a Quaker, saying that a herder perceives food as a gift that  regenerates itself. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I believe that herding animals, when done on a scale large enough to feel oneself completely, is a tremendous amount of work and that really, nothing is a gift. The animals must be fed properly, which means that if adequate food is not available, it must be procured–grown or found elsewhere. Cows, does, and ewes must be bred, calves, kids, and lambs delivered. Adequate water must be found. Fences must be build and then maintained. Milk, meat, and eggs are only a gift if they are a gift in trade for all of that work.

I recognize that the work of raising and keeping animals is a very different kind of work than the work of growing plants and grains. However, it is still difficult work, and not the paradise that Kessler depicts. Keeping goats as pets, in order to write a book about them, is very different than keeping animals to make a living–and it doesn’t matter if we are talking about farmers in today’s world or about people who lived 1000s of years ago.

There were valuable aspects of Goat Song. I really enjoyed the descriptions of cheese making. In addition, Kessler does a decent job of making his experiences accessible to post-domestic society (to return to an idea that we discussed early in the semester). His research on and discussion of pastoral people was interesting and thorough, if not quite as academic in tone as I would have liked.

I do not mean to bash Goat Song. However, I really did not find it to be partucularly useful to me. I think that, in general, Kessler’s experiences (and, more importantly, the way that he tells of them) simply propagate incorrect ideas present in post-domestic society and do nothing to create an awareness of what animal agriculture was (1000s of years ago) or what it has become.

Dogs, Early Humans, and Destiny

The two readings for this week, the beginning of How The Dog Became the Dog by Mark Derr and “Misguided Nostalgia for our Paleo Past” by Marlene Zuk, are peripherally related to each other, in that they address the history of the dog and the history of the human species, respectively. However, as we learn in the first reading, the history of our species and the history of the dog are inextricably linked. I address the history of the dog directly and the history of the human race indirectly in the first section of this post. Then I directly address human history and ideas related to destiny in the second section.

Dogs were always dogs

Logically, it makes sense that the dog was always in the wolf, and emerged very easily to befriend us. Wolves are highly sociable animals and live in packs with complicated hierarchy-based social structure. Or, alternately, you could just as easily say: humans are highly sociable animals and live in groups with complicated hierarchy-based social structure.

Social structure. What exactly do I mean? Wolves have a single alpha in a pack. Primitive humans often looked up to a single leader. Wolves in a pack all help to raise the pups belonging to the alpha and his mate. Humans look after others’ young. The lowest ranking wolf in the pack often retains some puppy-like characteristics for its whole life. This returns to the idea discussed in an earlier post–the idea of humans domesticating animals successful in part because they are such good nurturers. They nurture their own young and the young of others of their species, so nurturing animals of other species was not a particularly large change. I believe that modern humans view their pets almost in the same way that they view their own young.

My point is that wolves were naturally compatible with us before they became dogs. I am planning to read the rest of How the Dog Became the Dog (probably after school is over), because I like the author’s tone, but also because I am curious as to whether he agrees with my theory–that wolf social structure produced animals predisposed to incorporate into human social structure.

 Paleolithic man (Or: Are Our Genes Our Destiny?)

Is there truly anything that we are “meant to be”? Is that even a thing? If we are meant to eat diets and live lives like our paleolithic ancestors, then aren’t dogs meant to be wolves? Aren’t all livestock animals meant to run free and feed upon wild plant materials? Maybe we are all meant to return to the primordial soup.

I jest, but I am also quite serious.

I do not believe in destiny. I do not believe that I am meant to be anything, least of all a paleolithic human. Zuk’s points are valid, and I agree with him that humans are evolving more rapidly than they are often given credit for. Evolution can happen quite rapidly, particularly in response to environmental stresses. However, at the root of the argument that Zuk makes is the idea that our genes are our destiny and that we must do what our genes require us to do. I am a scientist, but I cannot believe that. We all are more than the sum total of our parts, more than our genes. An Olympic champion will not necessarily produce an Olympic champion. a genius will not necessarily produce a genius. There are countless stories of people rising to fame from completely unremarkable backgrounds (and equally unremarkable genetic material).

I do not think that our genes bind us to any certain fates. I think that it is silly, in this day and age, to make life decisions based upon what we are “meant” to do. I would argue that the human race is meant to do anything that it can innovate. If we are meant to do anything, we are meant to make choices.


“If The Reindeer Do Not Come”

Domestication as a mutualism

This week, our readings returned to an idea discussed in week 1‘s readings: that of domestication as a close mutualism. However, the perspective presented in The Reindeer People is a different one than those presented in Energy and Ecosystems and Evolutionary History because, in The Reindeer People, author Piers Vitebsky is describing an actual population, the Eveny people, with whom he has lived and who he has long studied.

The Eveny people, native to Siberia, have lived intimately with domesticated reindeer for 1000s of years. They are semi-nomadic in that they follow the reindeer as they migrate on their natural routes. They rely on the reindeer for transport and food, and in turn, the reindeer rely on them for protection. They Eveny need the reindeer as much as the reindeer need the Eveny. In the concluding chapter, Vitebsky quotes an Eveny song with the line:

“If the reindeer do not come
If the herd turns away
If the reindeer do not come
There will be no more Eveny!”

The Eveny obviously recognize their need for the reindeer and treat the reindeer with according respect. They do not fence the reindeer in and then mass-produce them for food, as we have with cattle and swine in this country. The dual nature of their relationship with the reindeer–both as a food source and as a mount and beast of burden–makes their relationship more complicated still. If you have established a bond with an animal in which you trust it as a mount, you are unlikely to want to eat that animal.

Perhaps the Eveny have a relationship with their reindeer that is similar to the relationship that early humans had with their domestic animals. They respect and even love and worship their animals and then eat them out of necessity.

Selection, domestication, and genetic variability

The domestic reindeer of the Eveny people lives side-by-side with the wild reindeer of siberia. However, the Eveny believe that domestic reindeer are entirely different animals, originating from different stock (according to legend) than wild reindeer and have two distinct words in their native language for wild and domesticated reindeer. Attempts have been made to tame wild reindeer, even calves, without any success.

Vitebsky basically implies that wild and domestic reindeer are two different strains and are genetically distinct. I did a bit of looking around and couldn’t find any population genetics papers to back that up. However, I would be willing to believe that this is simply because no one has done any specific research on reindeer genetics.

Genetic variability is a measure of differences in genotypes of individuals in a population (or, in more simple language, it is an indicator of how similar individuals are, genetically). Genetic variability is what allows us to select for different traits in breeding populations of animals. If we have high genetic variability, we can select for a trait for many generations and make progress (if we are selecting for heavy body weight, for example, the animals will get bigger every generation if genetic variability is high enough). Behavior (including tractability) is a genetic trait, so it follows that populations with higher genetic variability should be more domesticate-able. Domesticate-ability should be a quantitative trait–not just something we speculate about, but something we can actually measure.

I wonder how genetically divergent domestic and wild reindeer are. all we know is that they can interbreed and that domestic reindeer can go wild, but wild reindeer cannot become domestic. I would postulate that they came from a common ancestral population, but diverged long ago. The more tractable reindeer (all of them) could have taken up an intimate mutualism with humans and since have been selected for domestic traits. The wild reindeer, on the other hand, were those selected for their unwillingness to take up  an intimate mutualism with humans and have continued, each year, to be selected for this trait. If the original population, particularly the wild population, didn’t possess that much genetic variability (or if variability has decreased since the original divergence occurred, perhaps because of some sort of population bottleneck), it would be difficult to successfully domesticate the current wild population.

Clearly, regardless of original cause, there are two distinct strains of reindeer. I would be really interested to see a genetic analysis of the two strains, to see genetic differences between and among individuals of the two populations.


To be quite honest, I’m at a bit of a loss here. I am not religious and I have never been religious. I only understand religion in the context of “well, I can tell that it is very important to you.” However, I’ll do my best to understand the religious aspect of the Eveny people’s relationship with the reindeer.

I think that the spiritual connection that the Eveny believe that they share with reindeer stems from the fact that they rely on the reindeer for their livelyhood–they ride reindeer, eat reindeer, and live with reindeer year-round. Thus, because they rely so completely on reindeer, they have formed religious beliefs surrounding them. Of course, if you depend on a herd of animal, it is bad if one dies. It then logically follows, I guess, that this “bad thing,” bodes ill for your future and health–that is, it is a bad omen.


I guess that is has become clear in this blog post where my area of expertise are and where the holes in my expertise are. I really enjoyed the readings for this week and hope to, in my spare time, read the rest of The Reindeer People. I also hope to learn more about how the domestic and wild strains of reindeer came to be and about the genetic differences between the strains. This human/animal relationship, more than any other that we have discussed so far, is a fascinating one, because of the co-dependence between the humans and the reindeer. Reindeer have domesticated the Eveny people as much as the Eveny people have domesticated the reindeer and they are live together in a mutually beneficial way.

I Think I Wasn’t Talkative Enough This Week

Or: Camilla, Why are You Blogging Extra?


After leaving class this week, I realized that I had failed to communicate two of my highly relevant thoughts during our (slightly meandering) discussion. Maybe I was thinking too hard about taking notes or maybe I just think slowly. I don’t know. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order.

1. I do not dislike Bulliet. I actually think that Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is eminently readable and presents a lot of really interesting ways of looking at (and categorizing) the past. I think that our class (including me!) has beaten up on Bulliet because he is an easy target–he is highly and unapologetically opinionated. However, I do not always think that that is bad. Sometimes, particularly as an older academic (as Bulliet is), you can and should express your opinion without apologizing for it.
2. I think that there is a huge amount of value to knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Of course, application is important, but what is application based upon, if not knowledge? What inspired us first to understand the inner working of an atom or to fly to the moon? Knowledge. Poets don’t write poems because they are useful. I would argue that similarly, true scientists don’t do science because it is useful. How can we be of any service to the world, anyway, until we have a solid knowledge of its workings? If knowledge is not a high priority, the application or utility of the knowledge will certainly be second-rate.

Creating questions

Why and when and how exactly did domestication happen?

This week’s readings were about creating questions more than they were about answering them. In reality, we do not know how exactly animals came to be domesticated.

In Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers (for initial discussion of this work, see last week’s post), Bulliet argues that domestication happened as much because of religion, ritual, and sacrifice as because of a need for food. I find this to be highly improbable.The arguments in our first set of readings, describing domestication as a mutualism that developed almost naturally seems liker to me. How could religion and sacrifice take precedence over food procurement? Central to Bulliet’s argument is the suggestion that human males would be reluctant to give up hunting in favor of domesticating animals. I do not think that this is a reasonable supposition. Domestication was as favorable for the species domesticed as it was for

Bulliet’s argument for the use of animals for riding and heavy work is much more probable. I have ridden horses since I was little, and it seems very natural to me that humans would use animals for transport and heavy work. However, I do wonder how the initial riding or plowing training was done. I have broke horses to ride. The first time you get on an individual domestic horse is a little frightening–you don’t know quite how it will react. How frightening must it have been to mount a horse for the first time ever? What circumstances allowed for this to happen?

I do know that it was common practice among cowboys in the 1800s to bring colts in off of the range (2 and 3 year old horses that had rarely been handled), knock them down and castrate them (without any kind of anesthetic) and then get them up and ride them. Though this was traumatic for the young horses, it made the breaking to ride process much easier, because the colts were thinking harder about how much their surgery cuts hurt than they were thinking about how weird it was to have a person riding them. I wonder if a similar process allowed people to ride horses for the first time? Could people have initially gotten on a sick or hurt animal that would have a harder time hurting them?

In general, the arguments presented in Clutton-Brock’s Animals as Domesticates seem much more probable and reasonable to my mind than are Bulliet’s. Clutton-Brock uses a much more even-handed tone than Bulliet does–she is not passing wisdom down from on high, as Bulliet sometimes sounds like he is, but rather is presenting information that she has gathered from a variety of sources. I was interested to learn (after I had finished the reading) that she is in the zoology department at her university–apparently I have a bias towards the writing of those in fields similar to my own.

In particular, Clutton-Brock’s description of humans as nurturers was very compelling and I would like to hear her expand upon it. Humans care for their own young and for the young of other humans. The common saying “it takes a village to raise a child” really expresses this–culturally, we are OK with other people raising our children and with raise children for others. A clear modern-day example of this is human’s tendency to take their children to daycare centers. We aren’t really raising our own children in today’s society.

However, to return to the original point: humans are nurturers and we (today, at least) nurture our animals like we nurture our own young. People refer to their dogs or cats as their “children” and to themselves as their dogs’ “moms” and “dads.” It isn’t too large a jump, then, to imagine that early humans were more likely to want to care for another species than, say, early chimpanzees. Ingold touches on this point also, but in a slightly different sort of way, saying that hunters knew and cared for their prey in much the same way that they knew and cared for their fellow humans. Could humans have domesticated animals because of some sort of nurturing instinct over which we have no control?

Overall, these readings do not explain how domestication happened. Rather, they show that we do not know how it happened, exactly, and we really never will know, because history has happened–we can’t go back and check to see how it happened. Ingold sums up my opinion on the matter very eloquently in the introduction to his essay From Trust to Domination:

“Only humans… construct narratives of this history. Such narratives range from what we might regard as myths of totemic origin to supposedly ‘scientific’ accounts of the origins of domestication. And however we might choose to distinguish between myth and science, if indeed the distinction can be made at all, they have in common that they tell us as much about how the narrators view their own humanity as they do about their attitudes and relations to non-human animals. “

Every story we tell about how domestication happened is just that–a story. We do not know how exactly domestication happened and we never will. We can only theorize. I am beginning to realize that history is a discipline with many more questions than answers. In the study of history, you get a finite amount of evidence from which you must draw conclusions and, depending on who you are, those conclusions can vary widely.

Are Categories Useful?

Or Camilla Tells the Story of Her Life, Disguised as a Blog Post


Oh man. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers is so highly relevant to my interests. This blog post isn’t going to be brief, nor is it going to be unbiased. I am an animal science major and I am a vegetarian. I have many opinions on the ideas discussed in Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers.I guess I will begin by telling about my background (how I reached the opinions I have) and then I will discuss my reactions to the first four chapters of Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers.

I was brought up in Blacksburg. I’ve never lived on a farm, but when I was 8 I started riding horses, and after that time, spent huge amounts of my time on two farms. when I was 11, I raised a bunch of chickens and kept a few as laying hens and pets. Around that time, I also became a vegetarian–I didn’t want to eat my pet chickens (they were my friends), so why would I eat other chickens? I have always (even when I was a child) tried to be consistent and logical, so I decided that I also shouldn’t eat mammal species, because they are more highly intelligent than birds, in general. At that time, I read a lot about the animal right movement, and to me, as a soft-hearted 12-year-old, it seemed reasonable. I was a child who formed strong bonds with animals and didn’t see how they were so tremendously different than humans that they should be killed and eaten or used for production of eggs, milk, or wool. Fast forward about 6 years–I was 18 and had seen enough animal blood and suffering that I became much more hard-hearted. However, I argued that the animal production industry in this country was corrupt and I shouldn’t support it by eating meat. Then I became an animal science major and was truly exposed to farm animals, livestock production, and the realities of generating the food we eat.There isn’t anything evil about it.We have evolved to eat animals for 1000s of years. We raise animals, we treat them well, and we kill and eat them. (Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t anything wrong with the meat industry. There is a lot wrong with it. But this isn’t the place and time for that discussion. Generally, at its heart, there isn’t a thing wrong with killing and eating animals and that is my point.) However, I still do not eat meat. Richard Bulliet would call me an elective vegetarian and a product of post-domestic society and, actually, I would agree very strongly. In fact, I would say that my choices are, perhaps, more of a product of post-domestic society than most people’s choices are.

In post-domestic society, we are far removed from animals. We are not in contact with their excrement or their copulation. We do not see their suffering, their blood, and their death, but neither do we see their natural behaviors and contentment in life. Meat is no different than any other product that we buy at the store–we don’t know where it came from and we don’t really care. Ethically, should we be eating something that we know nothing about? If you eat a steak, you have had a part in death. If you don’t want to think about that death, should you be eating that steak?

Bulliet discuss the animal rights movement at length. However, he doesn’t really discuss the other side of the movement–the animal welfare advocates in animal agriculture. The animal welfare movement is made up of people who, by and large, still live a domestic lifestyle, rather than a post-domestic one, and who farm and produce the meat we eat. They state that we eat animals because we naturally are omnivores, and that food animals wouldn’t produce good food if they were suffering. However, I believe that I was slightly inaccurate when I said, earlier in this paragraph, that those who believe in animal welfare, rather than animal rights, are a movement. They are farmers. They are hardworking. they feed our country. They aren’t a movement in the same way that the animal rights movement is a movement, because they don’t really have time to be.

Based on my observations of the world and the general knowledge I have, I would postulate that many of the people involved in mainstream agriculture never left domestic culture. They grew up on farms and then decided to become farmers. However, a more interesting phenomenon is that of those who grew up in decidedly post-domestic culture–towns and cities–returning to small-scale, organic farming. Although I do not know whether this phenomenon has been documented, I have observed it in people I know, on several occasions.They want to return to the earth and raise their own food. They want to know where their food comes from. Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of her family (including her two daughters) returning to domestic culture (although she doesn’t call it that) in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Of course, Bulliet doesn’t (or hasn’t) made the distinction that post-domestic and domestic can be applied to individual lifestyles. He is making broader societal distinctions. However, I think that the difference that he describes can be as easily applied to individuals as to entire societies.

Central to Bulliet’s thesis is the idea that post-domestic society is more sensitive to sex and blood than domestic society was. I think that while his reasoning is sound, this idea really isn’t that surprising. If you are exposed to blood and sex, blood and sex aren’t shocking anymore. However, is it preferable to be shocked by blood and sex? is it better to exist in a world where those things are seen as taboo or in a world where those (very natural and normal) things are seen as normal and natural?

I think that humans have been becoming increasingly sensitive to discussion of human sex for a much longer time than we have lived in a post-domestic world. Our society is fascinated by sex and unwilling to talk about it, but that has been true of many societies throughout history. However, I do agree that never seeing animal sex makes us more fascinated by sex (I, personally, saw quite a bit of horse reproduction when I was 10-14 and was never quite as impressed by the idea of human sex as my same age peers were).

An interesting idea and one I would like to hear Bulliet discuss at more length is the idea that conservation efforts are a product of post-domestic society. Do we have to have some sort of distance from animals to decide that they are worth preserving?

Bulliet’s discussion of separation and per-domestic society is interesting, but not partticulatly earth-shattering. Of course pre-humans had to realize that they are different in some way from animals, and of course humans were hunter-gatherers before they domesticated animals. However, I suppose that  in order to have the later classifications, the earlier ones were necessary.

This blog post hasn’t moved in one direction. It has no thesis statement and is basically a reflection. However, if I have one main idea that I derived from the readings, it is that I don’t know whether categories (like domestic, post-domestic, and pre-domestic) are that useful. I think that it is useful to look at the effects of animals on human society, but with every label or category comes many exceptions to that label.